Mining's digital age

In the next few months, after I’ve finished all my winter birthdays/Christmas shopping, I will be the owner of a brand new, shiny, white and gold iPhone 6.

At least, that’s the plan.

I’ve been thinking about it for weeks, ever since #AppleEvent in September, to be honest, and I can’t wait to swipe my finger across that larger-but-appropriately-sized-for-once (am I right?) iPhone screen. I’m a big believer in customization, so I’ll probably spend the first day or so with my new phone downloading pink, white and gold icons for my apps, and I’ll probably spend at least another half a day organizing those apps into an order that really works for the way I use my phone.

I’m excited about my new phone, but I’m also apprehensive.

As a conscientious consumer, I’m aware that my brand new, shiny, white and gold iPhone 6 is made possible only by inclusion of conflict minerals, that is, minerals extracted from the Congolese mines for which much blood has been shed in a near-constant battle for power between government and rebel troops. Furthermore, as Clare Nolan wrote for the Global Sisters Report on this week, the conditions in some of these mines are troublesome, to say the least.

But the thing is, if you use any cellphone, or a computer, or a television or any other electronic device, you’re benefiting from conflict minerals. They’re in everything. To avoid them, you’d have to become a Luddite, which may sound appealing to many people, but isn’t reasonable when your job is to write for a website.

Typically, my plan of attack is this: wait to buy a new phone until my current phone is on its absolute last leg, and despite rumors that smartphones are designed to fall apart quickly, this generally works for me; I get several years out of most of my phones. Case in point, I’m still nursing an iPhone 4S, which – at the risk of patting myself on the back for a totally asinine achievement that some of you may roll your eyes at – is three iPhone models old. 

My point here is not to preach about the ethics of smartphones or even the ethics of consumption. My point is that we need to remain mindful as we advance deeper into the Digital Age, considering what every new convenience we enjoy might mean for other people. We might not be able to immediately solve every dilemma that comes our way as a result, but we should at least be aware of how global systems are interconnected and our role in them. 

In her piece, Clare Nolan highlights a school run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that helps children leave mining work. It’s a hopeful story, although Nolan ends by sharing her reservations about whether “promise of justice” can reign in a place like the DRC. If you use electronics, you should care about that and all its implications.

Conflict minerals are pervasive, but it’s not a hopeless situation. Tech giants like Intel have already vowed to stop using them, and even Apple keeps record of where its minerals come from. Other industries, wedding jewelry, for example, have popular conflict-free options, and it’s probably not long before electronics do too.

The point, I think, is to stay aware, and to make sure that the producers of the things you buy know that you are – and that you want change.

[Dawn Cherie Araujo is the staff reporter for Global Sisters Report.]